A rainy Tuesday afternoon uptown in the Bronx off the D train set the scene for a glimpse into the world of an enormous spirit contained in a human body. He came down to let me into one of his familiar spaces, greeting me with a smile that could light up an entire room. Frank took me upstairs into a warm apartment where we settled into our seats, brewed aromatic jasmine tea and got into the conversation. I wanted to know how he came to be: Filmmaker. Son. Educator. Uncle. Writer. Activist. Peace Poet. Brother. Talented human being.
“My father was a farmer in Moca and came here after learning how to be a barber in Santiago, and cutting hair for folks in the city. He was a country boy coming to the big city to cut hair (laughs) and then coming to New York to cut hair. So my mom was a nun and my dad was a barber and then they had six kids (laughter). I don’t know how the math adds up there,” Frank explained when I asked about his childhood and beginnings. His mother was a nun who had a vocation when she was in her teens; she taught younger kids as a clergy member. His family grew up in Washington Heights in a two-bedroom apartment, with him and three sisters in one room, and then his parents and other two sisters in another room.
“It was intense. It was beautiful though,” he said thoughtfully. Fondly speaking of his memories, his parents did as much as they could to provide and make sure their children were never without anything. “I guess one thing I gotta say is that, living with my five sisters, I did keep to myself a lot. And being the only guy in the family, I played by myself with my toys and that was the start of my film career,” Frank told me as he began explaining the roots of his passion for film. “When my sister, for her 13th birthday, finally got a camcorder, some old camcorder…when she got that, I was like, ‘oh my gosh, please let me use it!’ And she was like, ‘oh no…if you wanna use it, you gotta get a tape from Woolsworth. You gotta buy one of the tapes’. And I was like, ‘alright, I’mma buy a tape’. So I would sweep hair where my father worked at the barber shop, and they would give me little tips…every Saturday since I was 11 years old. They would give me tips and with that I finally made enough to buy the tape, and then I just started making little movies with my toys and stuff.”
Frank loved creating with film so much that it was the project he chose to do as an assignment in 8th grade. “I made this film called “Doll From the Darkside.” It was stop-start animation, all edited in camera. I did it because my teacher in 8th grade [wanted us to] invent something. I was like, I know what I’m going to invent! I’m going to invent a movie! She [responded], ‘Oh, that’s not an invention’. I was like, ‘Yes it is! This is going to take creation…you don’t know what I’m about to do!’” We died of laughter and he became even more animated as the story continued. “I was so set on it. I was like ‘hell no, I wanna invent a movie. It’s never been done’ (laughter). Like in my mind, that made sense. I’m inventing a story. And so I made this movie and they pulled out the VHS and TV. All the kids are like, ‘Oh snap, we about to watch a movie!’ I put it on and they loved it. I was like, ‘Yes! I knew this was gonna be a hit!’”
The Ghetto Film School, a high school film program in the South Bronx, was a natural step in the flourishing of one of his passions; the other being poetry. “That’s the highlight of my adolescence, making movies in the Bronx, rapping with my boys. Those were some awesome summers.” “I think one thing that people might not even know is that I grew up with Abe. I met him when I was three; he was my first friend,” he said, telling me that one of his sisters and Abe’s sister went to kindergarten together, though it wasn’t until 12 years later that they started getting into rhyming. Abe (Abraham) Velazquez Jr. is one of the members of The Peace Poets, the artist collective from the Bronx that Frank is a part of. Frantz Jerome and Frank linked during the film program. “I had known Frantz for almost three months and we found out we both rapped…and it was a wrap after that.” In the course of the conversation, I learned that the collective came to be what it is today with Luke Nephew being introduced by way of Enmanuel Candelario during his college undergraduate years.
This was all in contrast to his high school career. Frank shared that his mother’s past as a nun influenced his life in the sense that there were religious undertones in his upbringing, complete with nightly rosary sessions. “This is an interesting part of my life. At 14, I decided I wanted to be a priest. I decided I had a vocation,” he began his story. He remembers that after the rosary had been prayed, Abe’s mother would read stories of the saints to them. “Hearing about all these people that were really doing stuff in the world,” inspired him. Frank realized that priests are also active and so he ended up signing up for Cathedral Prep Seminary in Rye, New York. His cohort, however, was only three kids, so it was made into a program instead of being at the seminary. He instead went to Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains along with Abe and Enmanuel, which is part of the reason he was able to deal with the intensity of his high school years.
“I did not know racism until I got into high school. It was really intense; I was away from home, totally out of my neighborhood, literally one of ten students of color in a predominant white school. I remember the first day of orientation…there were three kids sitting in front of me in the auditorium…they were turning around and laughing.” It was then that Frank experienced what it meant to be “the other”. It hadn’t occurred to him that his identity as a Dominican made him different. His classmates, out of ignorance, didn’t appreciate him. “I was called a dirty Mexican – almost every single day, without exaggeration.” The years of his high school education had him questioning so much about faith and vocation, as well as the sense of not belonging to either of the worlds he was part of. Traveling from Washington Heights to White Plains showed him the stark contrast between classmates driving Benzs and BMWs and returning to his neighborhood where young men were dropping out of school. Around that same time was when Brotherhood/Sister Sol came into his life by way of Frantz who brought them (including Abe and Enmanuel) in. “Yo they’re starting up a new poetry program! We could go in there and we could do our raps and stuff!” Frank exclaimed, imitating Frantz’s invitation to them.
“Brotherhood/Sister Sol (Bro/Sis) was started in 1995 by my awesome mentors, Jason Warwin and Khary Lazarre-White,” Frank began, his words reflecting the deep love and appreciation for this influential part of his life. With the statistic of more men of color being in jail than graduating, Warwin and White wanted to work with young men in spaces that were alternative to schools in a way that would allow those young men to relate to what would be presented to them. Topics of focus at Bro/Sis include Pan-African Latino history, sexism and misogyny, conflict resolution and more. In 1998, they expanded to work with young women as well; one of the board members, Dr. Susan Wilcox, started the Sister Sol element. Together they worked with a curriculum and developed a method to work with people of color in single-sex spaces to discuss what it means to be a man, brother, leader and woman, sister, leader in a holistic way rooted in knowledge of self, cultural awareness and social justice. Both are rites of passage programs and have expanded to having after-school programming, summer day camp and other services for people from the age of 6 to 22.
Through his involvement with Bro/Sis, Frank has had the opportunity to travel to South America and Brazil, seeing firsthand some of the anti-apartheid movement and the quilombos’ struggle for land conservation. He is currently the resident filmmaker for the organization, responsible for various film projects past and present. Bro/Sis establishes partnerships with public secondary schools to develop gender-specific chapters with adults serving as chapter leaders. They facilitate weekly sessions and serve as mentors, supporters, confidantes, counselors, teachers, and more. Frank went onto explain that the chapter of Bro/Sis he was a part of was a collective of poets and writers who called themselves the Lyrical Circle. “That was the most beautiful time…every Friday evening; running from school to get to the brownstone and just cipher it up with all these amazing writers.”
“I learned more about myself there…I was into film-making and I was into telling stories before I went, but it opened up a whole other layer of creativity for me, just around knowing more about self, my own history, my people’s struggle and victories and all types of movements. It was like, wow, I’m connected to that story too? I didn’t know that. Nobody was going to tell me that. I wish young people had the opportunity to learn about themselves like that in a school space. It doesn’t have to be a school space but where they are for a majority of the day.” Bro/Sis also influenced the creation of The Peace Poets, as Frank describes, “a group of brothers who… grew up together and again in the space of creation and loved rhyming with each other and loved sharing with each other and went through a lot with each other growing up and were taught something extremely important that we need to just share. We were taught about community and vulnerability as young men. We were taught about our history and our beauty of it, the struggles that we’ve overcome and we’re still overcoming and so that is deeply embedded in our work.” With a deeper knowledge of himself, Frank set his sights on college.
During his time at the Ghetto Film School, Frank made a film called “Reflection”, which was about a man who was able to see the hardships of others in the midst of his depression. “That was my admission to NYU. [NYU] was an awesome experience…just ‘cause film school was not like other schools. It’s just a whole other thing. I was drawing and taking pictures and working on awesome editing machines.” He got into documentaries in his 2nd undergraduate year by way of meeting his documentary teacher. “That class is where I did the story of my mother, Washington Heights, and “Black Boys Don’t Cry”: Manhood in Urban America.” He studied abroad in Cuba, making projects as well as being a teacher’s assistant. Frank would end up returning to Cuba to work on a feature film with Robert Pietri and to teach a film class. His alma mater wanted him to keep teaching with them so he taught in Dublin, Malayasia and Singapore. Frank also got to teach in the Dominican Republic, working with Fundación del Desarollo de Democracia and One Race Productions, doing a 2-3 week summer intensive.
Through his passion for poetry and being an educator, he has experienced the power of community and written word as a viable path to self-discovery. At one of the residences Frank has done, West Brooklyn Community High School, he shared with his students, “If poetry is about humanizing…having the space where we’re humanizing ourselves, our experiences and each other, then poetry is not the point.” What mattered was writing in community and being willing to share and be vulnerable with it. He realized more and more that though it was about sharing the craft, it was also art therapy. Frank felt this acutely through his work at Bellevue Hospital as a youth arts educator and the Life is Precious program in the Bronx working with 15 young Latinas who had previously attempted suicide. He had a moment with those young women when he shared his poem about his nieces and nephews. The words in his poetry moved the entire room to tears; Frank was surprised by the reaction, but affirmations like this showed him the power of vulnerability and holding the space for others to do the same.
He shared a couple of thoughts about being Dominican, as it is something he is still unpacking these days with intention. “We didn’t grow up going back to the country,” Frank described about his childhood and parents’ ties to the country. His mother has never been back while his father has gone for emergencies, such as funerals and the like. “There was a disconnect from the island itself growing up. And at the same time I was connected to being a 1st generation Dominican American.” The majority of his experience was just in the cultural roots, being tied to family. Though, his experience witnessing his mother struggle in Spanish with public assistance appointments and being chastised by other Latinas tied the idea of race to class growing up. He’d see his mother tearing up and knew why – the injustice of even other Latinos refusing to help each other out in such hardship.
Being dedicated to his life’s work can be challenging. “To be totally honest, I’m trying to find the value in…fully valuing who I am and what I do. It’s a struggle to validate yourself in a world that’s constantly telling you that you need this degree and you need to make that much money.” These are the struggles artists like Frank confront daily even when his work speaks for itself; the volumes of his success may not be seen by a capitalist system but rather in the lives he has affected. “I’m proud of who I’ve been to people. I’m proud that people have had a positive experience of me…” he told me as we wrapped up our time together. Currently, Frank is teaching a video production class in Washington Heights with 6th graders, incorporating the idea of being super heroes with powers to change their communities. As always, he’ll be kicking it with The Peace Poets, continuing to strengthen his brotherhood and facilitate healing through educating and poetry. Frank will also continue to produce films with Bro/Sis and beyond. It was an honor to get a glimpse into his world.